Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast presents the viewers with a striking panorama of life. It can be considered a transporting new landmark in personal filmmaking. The 97-minute long narrative is an intense slice-of-life drama set against a turbulent phase of Northern Ireland’s history. The story unfolds from the perspective of a nine-year-old protagonist Buddy (Jude Hill). The film depicts how Buddy comes to terms with love and religion while growing up in a political situation that shapes his outlook of the world. The screenplay is structured with a simplicity that reflects the joys of bygone days. Painted in black and white imagery there is a natural flow of life in the film that makes the viewing experience thought-provoking and absorbing.
Further, it is a shining example of one of those screenplays that do not adhere to the conventional three-act structure. The scenes unfold at a measured pace and do not showcase one dramatic event after the other to hook the audience. Rather they’re constructed in a way that creates a lingering impression in the mind of the audience.
Story: As tensions between Protestants and Catholics erupt in Belfast, Ireland in 1969, a young boy is compelled to leave his hometown along with his family and head to England. The disclosure of the story of the film isn’t a spoiler because the narrative strength of the film is derived from the emotional depth that each of the scenes deliver. Each scene acts like a brick that helps shape the film into a coherent structure.
In order to understand the meticulous style with which the Belfast screenplay has been structured let’s dive into analyzing the film. I have divided the key narrative events of the film as following:
Beginning: The Tumultuous Outbreak
The film begins with colorful images of present-day Belfast followed by a transition to black and white images, which takes us back to August 15, 1969. We are introduced to various people living on Buddy’s street. The protagonist Buddy (Jude Hill) is playing with his makeshift sword along with his friend. His cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) informs Buddy that his mother (Caitríona Balfe) is calling him for tea. As Buddy makes his way towards his home he is caught in the attack by the Protestant loyalists on the homes and businesses of Catholics. There is chaos and explosion all around and Buddy is rescued by his mother. So, within the first few minutes, screenwriter Kenneth Branagh introduces us to the inciting incident of the film that will affect the rest of the narrative.
In the first half, we’re also introduced to various other characters: Buddy’s grandmother Granny (Judi Dench) and Buddy’s grandfather Pop (Ciarán Hinds). We are also informed that since Buddy’s family are Protestants they inflicted any direct harm from the mob. Buddy’s father Pa (Jamie Dornan) stays away from the family in England. At the same time, Buddy has also developed an attraction toward his classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant) despite the fact that she is a catholic.
All these characters are introduced in a very subtle manner and not in a very overly dramatic way. The purpose behind such an approach by Branagh is to indicate that the presence of these characters in Buddy’s life will impart slow and gradual changes in his persona. They will help Buddy maintain a calm and composed perspective that will eventually help him judge between what’s right and what’s evil.
Middle: The Mounting Tension
As Buddy continues with his journey in life, a key character Billy Clanton, an Ulster loyalist (Colin Morgan) is introduced in the film. He tries to convince Pa in an intimidating manner to join in the cause of evacuating the Catholics from their neighborhood. But Pa refuses and a conflict is created, making Billy an antagonist. Billy tries to approach Buddy in a conniving manner but our protagonist rebuffs his evil approach. In fact, Buddy’s rational approach toward life stems from Granny and Pop’s attempt to inculcate religious beliefs in the mind of their grandson. In fact, Granny and Pop protect their family from the political violence swirling around him.
However, Moira’s influence unwittingly leads Buddy to commit theft from a sweet shop. When his crime is detected by police, he doesn’t reveal the name of his partner in crime. Moria gets an impression that Buddy can be trusted and recruits him into her gang of Ulster loyalists. This brings a turning point in Buddy’s life with violent repercussions in the later half of the film. At the same time, Buddy’s parents struggle to pay their rent and back taxes. They are in a dilemma whether to leave the city for a safer place somewhere in the British Commonwealth and reside in a lonelier life as emigrants. But Buddy doesn’t want to leave Belfast because he doesn’t have anyone to play with. Most importantly, he has developed a friendship with Catherine.
So, this section of the film highlights the crisis in the life of the protagonist that propels the narrative forward. Buddy undergoes various critical stages of his life that will prepare him to confront the vagaries of the dramatic conflict in the final part of the film. The changes happening in his life will also affect his equation with his family members.
End: In Search for a New Abode
In the final act of the film, the major dramatic event that brings a turning point in Buddy’s life is participating in looting a supermarket following a riot by Ulster loyalists. Billy is the one who provokes his comrades into the plunder. And Buddy gets reluctantly involved. The innocent Buddy robs a box of laundry detergent and brings it to his home. His mother reprimands him and drags him to a shop to return the stolen laundry item. But the situation takes a drastic turn when the mother and son are taken hostage by Billy as the British Army arrives to pacify the unrest. At the same time, Pa also arrives and a standoff situation arises. But finally, Pa disarms Billy and the family is reunited. Billy gets arrested as well.
This incident makes such an impact that Buddy understands that it is no longer safe to stay in Belfast and he decides to leave for England along with his parents. Another key event that happens is the death of Buddy’s ailing and hospitalized grandfather. This particular event is a symbolic gesture where the death of an old soul marks the end of a bygone generation. Buddy’s grandmother who is left alone after the death of her husband stays back and watches Buddy along with his family moving to a new destination. We are left with the feeling that the newer generation had no other option left. Whereas, the older generation would prefer to cling to their roots.
The final act of the film is like a catharsis, where Branagh makes a tribute to all those who left for a secured abode as well to those who preferred to stay back. Thereby, the screenplay of the film is structured with the stillness of life and hope amidst a chaotic chapter of Britain’s history.
3 important creative takeaways from Belfast screenplay
1. Non-traditional approach: The treatment of Belfast is portrayed through the prism of unrest that leaves an indelible effect on the life of our young protagonist Buddy. The narrative style adopted by Kenneth Branagh does not follow the traditional approach of set-up and pay-offs. From the beginning to the end, Barangh’s screenplay employs a strategy where the unfolding of one scene after another creates a visceral impact. Though the actions in the film take place against a backdrop of scaling civil unrest, the screenplay focuses for the most part on smaller domestic dramas. By doing so, Branagh emphasizes not on the violent moments per se but how their consequence impacts the lives of these characters.
2. Signature Style: The entire film is shot in black and white except for scenes where the protagonist visits the movie theater to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) or attend a local production of A Christmas Carol. The action taking place on the screen as well as on the stage appears in vivid color. Since the film is semi-autobiographical, by infusing such creative transitions, Branagh shows how since his childhood entertainment has been a key part of his development as an actor. It can also be perceived as a homage that the screenwriter adds to his creations evoking a kind of nostalgia, that is both personal and artistic.
3. Practice: Over the years, Kenneth Branagh has honed his skill as an actor, writer and director, to the acme of perfection. All of these come together in making the screenplay of Belfast a cinematic memoir. Budding screenwriters should first learn the traditional rules of screenwriting so that they can break and mold their script with firm knowledge about the craft and not through sheer arrogance and indulgence. Here are 13 screenplays every aspiring writer should read.
Read the Belfast screenplay here.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.